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Innovation through collaboration: what it takes to make a workplace a ‘great place’


Creating a world-class work environment across borders can be a challenge, especially for a global business spread across multiple markets. For global organisations, your strength has to centre on your people – the way you work together, and how that helps you become more responsive to your clients’ needs. Taking a matrixed organisational approach is, therefore, critical to any organisation that wants to thrive on the unified value that its people, services and products bring to the market.

Over the past few years, Dimension Data has shifted its organisational structure to enable the optimisation of its function, which invariably increases the value it brings to its clients. This is reflected in the shift in new technologies, processes and roles that have purposefully been made over the last couple of years. Limitations brought about by physical restraints are mitigated by using a number of collaborative technologies and services that encourage teamwork and innovation.

But what’s also key to a successful matrixed organisation is involvement in projects and campaigns outside of the mainstream system integration business, areas much more likely to spark engagement with a global workforce. With some practical examples, here’s how it can be done.

1. Innovation through collaboration: An open source approach

To drive innovation in today’s market, we’re seeing an increasing trend towards more work being done in code. While Dimension Data enjoys a wealth of talented developers spread across various departments and regions, they’re often unable to meet face-to-face.

To improve collaboration, Dimension Data adopted an open source development technique: InnerSourcing. By adopting InnerSourcing, companies can unlock the great spread of talent available to them from across numerous regions and markets. The greatest ideas are born when people from different backgrounds and cultures, with contrasting experience and approaches, come together: and InnerSourcing enables this widespread cooperation.

InnerSourcing can be applied anywhere you write code or build automation. It encourages collaboration across teams and reduces time to-market, while increasing software reuse. The strength of most successful global organisations relies on the strength of their people, and the way those people work together.

While the InnerSourcing project targets those already proficient in coding, what about employees who are keen to learn? In conjunction with this year’s Tour de France, Dimension Data launched its inaugural ‘Le Code to France’ competition, an initiative that combined the world’s biggest cycling race (of which Dimension Data has been a partner for the past five years) with its Learn to Code programme, another InnerSourcing project that allows the company’s 28,000 global employees to share and access code stored on a common platform, no matter where they are in the world.

For Le Code to France, entrants were tasked with creating new and exciting ways to capture the imagination of fans and followers of the Tour de France.  Submissions came from all over the globe, from a team of graduates in South Africa to a one-man band in Taiwan. The winning team – aptly named Mark Codendish – delivered a gamification-based concept that allowed fans to go head-to-head with Dimension Data’s famous machine learning #DDPredictor.

Watch the Le Code to France video:

Even though many of the ‘Le Code to France’ entrants didn’t possess strong technical skills, the competition made them aware of internal tools that can inspire a technical drive within anyone.

By removing barriers to collaboration, companies can develop the skills needed to move with the market and transform their organisation. And what better way to engage a global workforce than with a global competition? It can inspire creativity, increase motivation, and be the catalyst for innovative activities that even the participants didn’t think they’d be capable of.

2. The best investment is in people

All four members of the winning ‘Le Code to France’ team had at least one thing in common: they were all young and hungry graduates. HR is arguably in the best position to contribute towards a company’s long-term prosperity, and while investing in the future might seem obvious, staggeringly, even some of the world’s ‘biggest’ companies often overlook it.

The responsibility lies with a global leadership team who put collaboration top of its priority list. As a HR director, are you regularly in contact with your namesake colleagues across the company’s global markets? This notion of a lone HR genius shouldering the entire department’s responsibility is a myth that needs stamping out. Instead, nurture a culture of community that values a bottom-up approach, which is often where most innovative ideas are born.

As an example, Dimension Data’s Graduate Accelerate Programme plucks the brightest minds from across the world, allowing them access to the full spectrum of a global organisation. Young employees shouldn’t feel as if they’re boxed in a corner – if, after a couple of years, they decide their passion lies in coding rather than marketing, support that move with everything you’ve got – or surely risk losing them.

Arrange initiatives to not only nurture your young talent, but also to actively celebrate their contributions to the organisation. Each year, Dimension Data sends 10 of its highest-performing young employees from across the world to its parent company NTT Group’s HQ in Tokyo to network with colleagues from other NTT companies, meet senior leaders, and learn about how global organisations work effectively together, experiencing the diverse organisational culture first hand.

3. Breaking down barriers

The key to true collaboration within a global organization is proactively preventing any isolated silos from forming. Technology is the key enabler of global collaboration, with communication platforms the perfect tool to support a culture of voluntary information and knowledge sharing.

Dimension Data uses technologies such as Microsoft Teams and Yammer to increase reciprocal cooperation, which ensures resources, knowledge and talent are unlocked and made accessible across the organisation. Make sure all your employees, regardless of location or seniority, have access to multiple communication and remote working tools. Dimension Data often has projects running in three continents with teams from three distinct regions, where delivery is executed in Africa, project and programme management is handled in America, and reporting is executed in Asia.

To bring a global workforce closer together, it’s critical an organisation focuses on the unified value that its people, services and products bring to the market. Consider establishing a robust set of core values that underpin your company’s every action. Dimension Data’s work ethic is predicated on the SAFe framework, which relies on Agile teams working towards a cycle of short-term goals aimed at business planning and outcomes, resulting in improved alignment and trust between development and business stakeholders.

For example, Dimension Data is currently running a global initiative in its services space, where disparate teams around the world work together in Agile-inspired sprints that develop and deliver projects every 12 weeks. Over 500 team members from across the world come together once a quarter in a facilitated PI planning session where completed programmes are evaluated, work in progress is assessed and future planning is done.

4. Reinvent your HR function

To be a top employer, companies must focus on transforming all HR aspects of the company: from talent management to leadership, and training and development to the initiatives that can attract, retain, and engage talent.

Consider seeking certification from the Top Employers Institute, a company that recognises and celebrates the world’s best employers. The programme is rigorous and the criteria very stringent, but it forces you to keep raising the bar in order to attract and retain the talent you need. It makes your people proud, it increases trust with your clients, and perhaps most interestingly, it drives a marketing mind-set within the HR function.

Social media has brought such transparency to talent attraction. Today people are using their personal social networks and websites such as Glassdoor to form an impression of your organisation. Candidates will have judged your company long before you’ve had a chance to tell them what you have to offer. This is the world that HR has to compete in today.

It’s even harder when you’re in an industry like ours, where there’s a war for talent. That’s why we need to bring a marketing mindset to the HR function – allowing us to manage the expectation of the speed and immediacy that social media brings. We need to start reaching the people we want to attract through targeted, one-to-one social strategies.

It’s all about business objectives

Ultimately, HR must recognise that its purpose is to provide a service to the business, and, to do that, it needs to understand the organisation’s broader challenges. So many valuable lessons can be drawn from getting involved in projects outside of the mainstream system integration business – I cannot stress it enough. These initiatives constantly test a company’s ability to innovate, collaborate and deliver outside of our comfort zones.

Dimension Data’s partnership with the Tour de France, in particular, relies on the seamless integration of sport and technology. The action in the peloton – the main cycling group during a race – is often matched by the tension and pressure that the on-the-ground Dimension Data team experiences when trying to transmit critical information about the race from the highest mountain peaks to both the team and viewers. Again, this can only be made a reality by an organisation possesses a matrixed structure, where everything is focused on clear business objectives.

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